Honor Flight: The Trip of a Lifetime
By LuAnn Droege
Trips of a lifetime can be described in so many ways, but for me I had the privilege of escorting my father, Louis Lee Fogleman, on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
The day began by meeting the group at 4 a.m. in early October at the airport in Marion, where a chartered plane awaited the group of 87 veterans.
The Southern Illinois chapter of the Honor Flight Network is very organized and includes many volunteers making the day so successful.
Instructions include many things including keeping your veterans close to you and not being more than an arm length away. Anyone who knows my dad knows he took this as a challenge, but I was successful for the most part. The only time he veered away from me was at D.C. Airport waiting to fly home and I had a quick scare.
Guardians responsibility was also to make sure veterans pay for nothing, this is a totally free trip for them. Guardians do pay a fee, but veterans expenses come from donations and fundraising. Veterans are also provided with red shirts, a jacket and a cap. Guardians wear blue shirts and can purchase a jacket, which I did and will wear with pride. Guardians also solicit notes, letters, cards for their veterans to be presented to them on the flight home.
When signing in at the airport, we are given a lanyard with our seat assignment, bus number and a number for boarding. Veterans are assigned window seats and some are split across the aisle from their guardian.
Before departing, we were told a veteran had died a couple of months before getting to go on the flight. The volunteers led a solemn ceremony dedicating a flag to fly with the group and go to all the memorials. This began the first of many emotional events and it was hard to not cry in front of our strong, stoic veterans. This veteran’s family met the flag back in Marion and took part in that emotional ceremony.
The next emotional moment for me was sitting next to a veteran whose brother had died in Vietnam and an uncle in Korea.
When we landed in D.C., there were volunteers in the airport waving flags, shaking veterans hands and guiding the group to the four buses. Young and old also stopped, saluted, clapped and cheered the veterans. Another emotional moment trying to hold back the tears.
A police escort awaited the buses and a group of volunteers from Washington D.C. were aboard the buses awaiting the group to narrate the city’s sites. Honor flights and foreign dignitaries are the only groups police escort. It is a sight to behold, the police stop cars, run red lights. It is really the only way the veterans can see so much in one day. We made seven stops and saw nine memorials.
Our first stop was the World War II Memorial. A sea of veterans in their red shirts visiting the memorial is truly inspiring. My dad served in the Army and was stationed in Okinawa. We had a picture of us taken at this memorial sitting by the word ‘Okinawa’ and this is one of my favorite pictures we had taken. I would later find out it was also one of my dad’s favorites. As we walked around, my dad shared many of his army stories I had never heard before.
On our next stop we would visit three memorials: Korea, Lincoln and Vietnam. My dad insisted on climbing all the 87 stairs to the Lincoln Memorial. My dad and I walked next to the Korean memorial where the soldiers’ eyes on the statues seem to follow and haunt you. A wall highlighting a variety of unknown military are featured.
My dad shared stories of many of our family members who were in this war.
Next, we walked to the Vietnam Memorial where many veterans traced the names of their family members or veterans they served time with.
The Marion Chapter has sponsorships for the wheelchairs that are provided for every veteran on the trip. Here is where we stopped and talked to a veteran who was sitting in a wheelchair that was in memory of William “Willie” Heitkamp, who my dad and I knew, along with his family. We shared stories with this veteran about our friend and listened to his stories.
After driving around the city, seeing many famous sites, we stopped at the Navy Memorial. Our tour guide always shared interesting and valuable information before each stop. At this stop, we were privileged to witness a promotion ceremony.
We were provided a lunch box meal on the bus and a variety of snacks and water throughout the day.
We also stopped at the USMC Memorial and USAF Memorial, the newest of the memorials in our capitol before our visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
This was the only stop my dad wanted a wheelchair, but it was mostly because he wanted a seat for the ceremony. A group picture of all the veterans was taken at this site. The busses are allowed to drive right up to the entrance and drop veterans off instead of making the long trip from the parking lots.
The veterans and guardians gathered around the perimeter to witness changing of the guard at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The precision of the soldiers’ cadence is inspiring and humbling. Witnessing all of these veterans seeing this ceremony was another moment overcome with emotion. We also witnessed three different groups presenting a wreath.
Our last stop was at the Women’s Memorial and even though it was closed, our escort shared stories and we were given a chance to walk around before heading to the airport.
More volunteers were at the airport honoring our group of veterans. Guardians were asked to pick up a wheelchair to load in the plane even if our veterans didn’t want to use it. After spending the day with my dad, he said let’s take a “selfie” of me pushing you in the wheelchair. Everyone will love it he says. I guess he did listen to me during the day and picked up on some new lingo.
Patriotic music played on the plane. Mail call was called for the 87 veterans before we landed in Marion.
A truly awe-inspiring welcome ceremony was held for the veterans when we arrived home. Fire department and volunteers lined the route from the plane to the lobby welcoming the veterans and cheering for them. Two family members greeted each veteran and a young volunteer had a picture of the veteran when they served. Each veteran and their branch of service was announced before entering the lobby to cheers, salutes and high fives throughout the airport.
I can not believe how all of this is accomplished in a day, but it was. The best part for me was the Honor of sharing the day with my dad. It is a day I will truly treasure forever. I would encourage everyone to listen to our veterans and record their experiences. They are finally opening up and willing to share with you a part of our history.
Honor Flight History
Honor Flight Network strives to do whatever it takes to fulfill the dreams of our veterans and help our heroes travel absolutely free. Efforts began with the World War II veterans followed by Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. The Honor Flight Network was co-founded by Earl Morse, the son of a Korean and Vietnam War veteran and Jeff Miller, a small business owner and son of a World War II veteran.
Morse, a physician assistant and retired U.S. Air Force captain, worked in a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Ohio. After the National World War II Memorial was completed in 2004, he realized many of his WWII patients would not be able to travel to DC to visit their memorial. Morse, himself a pilot, offered to fly with two veterans to Washington. In January 2005, he pitched the idea to about 300 private pilots at his local Air Force aeroclub. He proposed the pilots would pay for the flights and personally escort veterans around the city. Eleven additional pilots volunteered. By January 2005, a board was formed, funds were raised and other volunteers had joined. Six small planes flew 12 veterans to Washington, D.C in May 2005 for the first Honor Flight.
In late 2005, Miller, a dry-cleaning company owner in North Carolina, inspired by Morse, had a similar idea but on a larger scale – to charter entire commercial jets! The son of a WWII veteran and nephew of a B-24 pilot who died in the war, has been a charter member of National World War II Memorial Foundation. He was also concerned that local WWII veterans would never visit their new memorial. Miller formed HonorAir and began flying veterans. By end of 2006, HonorAir had flown more than 300 WWII veterans. His actions revolutionized the mass movement of these senior heroes to Washington, DC.
In February 2007, Morse and Miller met in Washington D.C. and merged the two groups into the Honor Flight Network. By 2017, there were more than 140 honor flight network regional hubs across the U.S. Now, the network is escorting WWII, Korean War and Vietnam war veterans to see their memorials.
Donations are accepted for the Honor Flight Network and there are numerous ways to help the local Marion Chapter.